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Article

Sign Languages  

Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway and Kristin Snoddon

Ethnographic studies of sign languages illuminate and complicate the ways in which the category of sign language is differentiated from other categories, including the categories of language and non-language, different types of sign languages, and signed versus spoken languages. These studies also highlight how sign language ideologies emerge in particular contexts, methods, and interpretations of data. An ethics of nonnormative communication is both an object and a mode of inquiry in anthropological and ethnographic studies of sign languages. Rather than pursuing categorical distinctions between codes and modalities, ethnographic studies show that such distinctions hinge on the situated interpretations that people make based on their life experiences, their sensory orientations, and the ideological frameworks that mediate their assessments.

Article

Social Media  

Kendra Calhoun

Foundational linguistic anthropological theories of community, identity, and multimodality, among other topics, offer invaluable insights into communicative practices on social media. Phenomena on social media also require researchers to continually adapt and update these theories—which were first conceptualized before social media became integral to everyday life—to account for the unique communicative possibilities afforded by constantly evolving digital technology. Like anthropological studies in in-person contexts, anthropological studies of language and culture online vary in scope, theoretical framing, and methodological approach depending on their central topics of inquiry. Social media can be studied within a primarily in-person ethnographic project as one of many sites of communication for members of a community in addition to (or overlapping with) contexts such as work, school, and the home. Social media can also be studied as primary sites of analysis through digital ethnographic approaches, typically focused on the communication patterns within a network or community of social media users on a single platform. Linguistic anthropological perspectives on social media are necessarily interdisciplinary, informed by scholarship in related fields including sociolinguistics, cultural anthropology, communication studies, and media studies. To this interdisciplinary understanding linguistic anthropology contributes a unique perspective attuned to the details of linguistic structure and the ways language and culture are mutually constitutive.

Article

Language Revitalization and Multimodality  

Georgia Ennis

Linguistic and cultural shift are some of the most pressing issues facing minoritized speakers around the world. Language revitalization initiatives seek to increase the number of speakers through various pedagogical and social interventions. Language, however, is not simply a code transmitted between individuals, but comprised of a wealth of associated practices, norms, and forms of interaction in which that code has meaning. Multimodality is both an approach to the various communicative modes or semiotic fields of language, as well as a form of ethnographic practice related to media. Multimodality matters for the pedagogical methods, communicative modes, and media technologies involved in language revitalization. A multimodal approach to language revitalization includes modalities beyond a single communicative channel or form of media in recognition of the multifunctional and multidimensional nature of language.

Article

Literacy  

Laura Sterponi and Jenny Zhang

Literacy has been in the purview of anthropological inquiry since the late 19th century. In fact, while linguistics repudiated written language as derivative and secondary (Saussure), it has been anthropology that has chiefly contributed to the establishment of literacy as a domain worthy of investigation. Whether through historical analysis or ethnographic methods, anthropologists have consistently attempted to elucidate literacy’s effects on human cognition and societal organization. Early formulations conceptualized literacy as a technology and connected the acquisition of writing to a significant enhancement of cognitive capacities at the level of the individual and to the inception of democracy at a societal level. This view was subsequently criticized and, in the 1980s, replaced with a socioculturally situated perspective which theorized literacy as a cultural practice expressed in manifold cultural activities and at the same time shaped by political, economic, and ideological conditions. Attempting to overcome both technological determinism and cultural relativism, theoretical formulations of the last few decades have advanced a techno-cultural articulation and an expansion toward multimodality. As theories of literacy have come to affirm plurality, complicating linear trajectories and teleological narratives underpinning alphabetic ascendancy, literacy education has turned into a more complex and controversial focus of inquiry. On the one hand, literacy researchers have taken to examining a wide range of contexts beyond schools, thus displacing schooled literacy from center stage. On the other hand, they have acknowledged that schooled literacy continues to have a very powerful function in society. Scholarship at the intersections of literacy and disability and of literacy and race illuminates the functioning of schooled literacy as a mechanism for the maintenance and reproduction of a social order predicated on racial hierarchies and ableism. The methodological toolkit of cultural and linguistic anthropologists equips them well to achieve rich documentation of literacy practices on the ground and to shed light on the political and economic forces that shape textual activities locally and globally. In advancing the literacy research program, anthropologists can be instrumental in deepening our understanding of literacy as a transnational phenomenon and as an international enterprise. Building on the important work that has brought to light the ways certain conceptualizations and implementations of literacy align with systems of oppression and inequity, anthropologists are also well positioned to advocate refashioning and repositioning literacy as an instrument and objective of social justice and community empowerment.